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Dalit: The Overcomers

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A warmer Dalit story beyond the familiar narrative of discrimination, dispossession and brutalisation. Open portrays lives that have turned adversity into opportunity

In Rajinikanth’s first appearance in the film Kabali, the superstar is seen reading My Father Balaiah written by Professor Satyanarayana, a retired academic from Telangana. The book tells of the discrimination faced by the professor’s father and grandfather in Vangapalli in Kamalapur mandal. It describes the conflict between landowners and labourers, against the backdrop of untouchability. Kabali itself is a story of migrant Indians in Malaysia fighting for equal rights. “I am not one who will just stand before you at your order. I am a different Kabali,” the film’s hero says to a gangster. On another occasion, when he is asked about his Western attire, he retorts, “Mahatma Gandhi removed his clothes, while Ambedkar always wore a suit. There are secrets behind this.”

Kabali is a movie that gives voice to the downtrodden. The appearance of a book on Dalit oppression at its start is a hint of the narrative to come. In India, today, while we see Dalit anger erupt on the streets, we are also witnessing the rise of Dalits to positions of influence. They have long sought to escape social injustice they face by forming their own political parties, migrating away from their birthplaces in search of a better livelihood, or converting to other faiths. “These combined efforts have surely made a difference and the relative position of a Dalit is a far cry from what it was earlier,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad, noted Dalit ideologue. Yet, the journey is far from complete. Recent incidents across the country have enraged Dalits as they question the treatment meted out to them.

That Dalits need new sources of income, and not just the token government jobs doled out to them, is beyond question. A few have thus embarked on the path of entrepreneurship. The trajectory from a landless labourer to a businessman is never without obstacles. But a new generation of entrepreneurs—who are socially and technologically aware—is set to prove its mettle and overturn an old paradigm of deprivation. These are enterprising people who are ready to get past a history of discrimination and forge new lives of self-empowerment through grit, hard work and new ideas. They have started and grown businesses in areas as diverse as food to electric cable junction boxes, jewellery to auto parts. In a country so badly divided along caste lines, these businesses are not just cash generators. They are helping India overcome social borders, inspire other entrepreneurs, and turn adversity into opportunity.

If you are hard working, the market shows you the way. I never faced any discrimination because I am from the Dalit community

Milind Kamble, chairman of Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), an industry body for Dalit businessmen, fears a momentary backlash to the emergence of Dalit success stories. “Incidents like the recent attacks on Dalits in Gujarat will grow in the coming days,” he says, “The more that Dalits come out of the clutch of caste and establish themselves, the more it will trouble those who are not used to it. But this will also lead to a final movement away from discrimination and [towards] an equal society.” Protests by Dalits are part of this movement, he feels, and the new solidarity against atrocities will effect change.

The efforts of the DICCI have seen impressive outcomes. The Public Procurement Policy for Medium and Small Enterprises(MSEs) issued on 25 April 2012 by the previous UPA Government, for example, required all Central ministries, departments and PSUs to ensure at least 20 per cent procurement from MSEs, and within this, 4 per cent from MSEs promoted by Dalits. The scheme was voluntary for three years and made mandatory in 2015. “In the first three years, the procurement from Dalit entrepreneurs was a little over 0.5 per cent, but is it growing now,” says Kamble.

The NDA Government under Narendra Modi has offered Dalits more incentives to start business ventures. From Stand Up India to the MUDRA Scheme to the Credit Enhancement Guarantee Scheme, a Dalit can get financial aid of Rs 50,000 to Rs 15 crore, depending on the need, be it setting up or scaling up.

Dalits are taking up these opportunities. Under the Venture Capital Funding Scheme managed by the Industrial Finance Corporation of India (IFCI), out of Rs 200 crore, Rs 168.10 crore has already been sanctioned to 46 Dalit entrepreneurs across the country, as per IFCI data. NK Chandan, managing director of Ghaziabad-based Chandan and Chandan Industries, is one of the beneficiaries of the VC fund: his business has been sanctioned for Rs 2.1 crore expansion. Out of Rs 137,449 crore disbursed under MUDRA scheme, almost 30 per cent has been given to SC/ST entrepreneurs. A national hub for SC/ST businessmen is also being created. “There is definitely an explosion of Dalit enterprise taking place which started post-liberalisation,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad. “This explosion is the cause of [a new] confrontation.” However, Prasad says that despite their efforts, Dalits have little presence in too many industries. “Dalits don’t have access to high- power networks and hence most of them would be seen in basic sectors like manufacturing, food and related industries. Service sectors have the lowest presence,” he says.

There is an explosion of Dalit enterprise that started post liberalisation. However, Dalits don’t have access to high-power networks and hence most are seen only in basic sectors

Vivek Kumar, professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, holds the media and political parties responsible for much negligence suffered by Dalits. “Look at the media today; where do you find Dalit faces? Even the political parties except for Mayawati, which Dalit leader or party is talking about atrocities faced by them?” he asks. “Dalits have been orphaned by Indian society and that’s why they are coming out to express themselves.” To many, starting a business is another form of this expression.

CHANDRA BHAN PRASAD, 58, has studied Dalit lifestyles for years. This, plus his own experience as a Dalit child, prompted him to start in July. The food portal is the result of four years of research and discussions. “Dalit food is completely different from what others eat. They could never afford the food eaten by landlords,” says Prasad. “Hence they innovated [to create] their own menu, depending on what was cheap and available.” A pickle or chutney serves as a spicey relish for most Indians, but for Dalit families, it is an important source of nutrients since it takes the place of fresh vegetables and pulses. So they prepare it in such a way that it lasts long and stays appetising. The idea of the website is to popularise the cuisine among others. He explains this with an example of flour made of dry peas. Peas are cheaper than pulses, so a typical rural Dalit family buys a lot of it during the monsoon season. They grind it and make thick bread out of the flour. They supplement it with red chilli and salt chutney. “This is brunch for four months in an average Dalit household in India,” says Prasad.

Similarly, dishes like mango pickle, barley sattu and flax seeds chutney are part of the diet. “We put lots of mustard oil in our pickles so they last for long,” says Prasad. Dalits usually eat less pulses because it’s expensive; when they do, it is usually the cheap unpolished kind. “Nowadays in urban areas, because of their growing income, Dalits too have started eating polished pulses, but in rural places, it is still the farm-fresh skinned pulses.” According to him, Dalit cuisine has inherent health benefits. “Today you go to a dietician and he will recommend flax seed to reduce cholesterol and rough food grains for a better and healthy lifestyle. What Dalits have been eating for ages, modern science is recommending today,” he says.

It is such a diet that allows an 85-year-old Dalit to walk with a load on his head while the well-off need walking sticks by this age, adds Prasad. “If you want to remain healthy and fit,” he says, “then Dalit cuisine is the way to go.” Currently, he has a list of 15 products on his portal. The dry peas flour has just passed a lab test. On offer are mango pickles and some spices like coriander, turmeric and red chilli. Prasad hopes to widen the offer basket in a month or two. He sources these materials from different regions of the country, mostly from Dalits. The coriander is from Guna in Madhya Pradesh, turmeric from Vidarbha, Maharashtra, and red chilli from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. “We source it mostly from water-deficient areas. It is hard work to grow vegetables in those areas and hence the quality of product is much better,” says Prasad.

The portal has received around 100 orders within a month of its launch. “If one starts eating what Dalits eat or things prepared by Dalits,” Prasad says, “it will also bring two societies closer to each other.” He is, however, wary of certain customers. “Those who buy Patanjali products are looking for a different kind of purity and they won’t come to us. They are more interested in religious purity packaged as food; what we offer is pure food minus religion.”

You are free to do your gau raksha, but not at the expense of others.There are some who earn a living by skinning animals or eating beef. They should also be free to live their own way

Business was never an option for 47-year-old Nand Kishor Chandan, who finished a diploma in Mechanical Engineering in 1990. He was the fourth of seven siblings. His father had retired from a government job in 1987 and the family was living on his pension. He did some part-time work in a hosiery company to supplement the family income. Though armed with a diploma, he struggled for more than a year to get his first job. This was at a company selling second-hand photocopiers. On Chandan’s suggestion, the firm moved from ink to dry ink machines, including printers, and the business started growing. In 1995, it was renamed Recon Enterprises, and its owner Anup Gupta offered him a partnership in it. “He is my mentor, guardian and advisor. I am here because of him,” says Chandan. He went on to become a director and partner in the company.

But in 2008, with a Central notification on e-waste, trouble started brewing for the business, and used printer revenues started declining. Within two years, all the partners of the company had left. So, in 2012, Chandan bought the plant for Rs 1.82 crore. “This was what I had earned and borrowed from friends,” he says. The firm was renamed Chandan and Chandan. He associated himself with the DICCI, and an opportunity from the Tata Group arose. He was asked to produce industrial safety helmets for Tata companies. Later, he turned to making meter boxes for Tata Power in Delhi. He has just got a contract worth Rs 2.5 crore to make electric cable junction boxes for the same company. His firm’s turnover is now around Rs 7 crore and it has about 100 employees. Apart from this, he has invested in the construction sector too. “If you are hard working, the market shows you the way,” he says. “I never faced any discrimination because I am from the Dalit community.”

Chandan likes to dress well, a habit he developed in his college days. “Maybe that’s why most people didn’t think I was a Dalit,” he says. Gupta, his former employer, says, “Once I visited his house and saw Ambedkar’s posters. Only then did I come to know that he is a Dalit.” Chandan has a piece of advice for fellow Dalits: “Have patience and keep working hard. Don’t worry about what people say. You will achieve success.”

NIDHISH ANAND, 34, had all that a young man of the times would want: working parents, a BTech degree in Computer Science, and a job at IBM. His father had retired as a section officer from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 2010. But this was not what he was destined for. “Right from college, I wanted to do something on my own,” he says. He left his job and started a handicraft business in 2008-09 with a friend. After a year or so in the business, he fell ill and was advised bed rest for a year. Business declined and they had to shut shop. Once he recovered, he scouted for new business opportunities. After much research, he set up DN Jewellers in 2011.

A new generation of Dalit entrepreneurs is set to prove its mettle and overturn an old paradigm of deprivation, people who are ready to get past a history of discrimination and forge new lives of self-empowerment

“Mine was a wholesale business of offering 22-carat gold jewellery to different brands,” he says. The business grew, and by 2012-13, its turnover was around Rs 6 crore. Anand shares an interesting market nugget. “No one offers 24-carat gold jewellery in India. You get 24 carats only in gold bars and biscuits, but not in jewellery,” he says. In India, Tanishq is the only brand that offers 24-carat gold jewellery. In 2014, he met this Titan brand’s representatives to explore the 24-carat gold business. “Being a member of DICCI definitely helped me meet those at the top,” he says. “It took a lot of time to materialise the contract, and supply to Tanishq finally started in December 2015.”

But to start a 24-carat business with Tanishq, he had to wipe off his 22-carat business. “I needed money and I could do only one thing with the capital I had,” he says. He is hopeful of success in the current financial year and is eyeing more funding to expand his business. His educational background helped him reach where he is, but says he faces some discrimination now. “In college, friends would joke that I could easily become an IAS officer because of reservation, but that was it,” he says. “Here, in business, they would actually restrict you because of your caste but won’t tell you.” Anand recalls a recent incident involving an investor who was willing to fund him but backed out when he discovered his Dalit background. “It is disturbing, but you can’t change certain people. I know I will grow even if he doesn’t help me,” he says confidently. “I don’t want to look like I am against any political party, but the incident proves that Dalits need reservation much more than others. Those who demand reservation based on income should understand that a poor Dalit is quite different from a poor upper-caste person.”

Dalits need reservation much more than others. Those who demand it based on income should know that a poor Dalit is quite different from a poor upper-caste person

Anand plans to employ more Dalit youth in his business and would also like to educate children of the community.

DALIT ENTREPRENEURSHIP thrives more in states that have a business culture and offer a better climate to startups. States where Dalits are politically more empowered, on the other hand, also have fewer business opportunities. Prasad says this is why we see more entrepreneurs from west or south India, rather than from states like Bihar.

Ravindra Paswan, 35, is a Dalit businessman from Bihar whose fortunes changed once he moved to Delhi. Born into a poor family in Chhapra, Paswan could not study because of lack of funds. “I left school in Class II,” he says. Today he runs two companies, one dealing with electronic items and the other in automobile parts, clocking a turnover of more than Rs 1 crore. As a child, he was just like any other Dalit living in a village, doing odd jobs in fields or shops. In 1995, he came to Delhi to study but took up a job at a thermometer factory for Rs 250 a month. He used to send his salary home, and survived on the overtime cash he earned. In two years, he had understood the business and was keen now to do something on his own. While still at his job, he invested his savings of Rs 20,000 to make auto parts for companies. Once the business took off, he left his job. Today, his companies Om Electric and Omtex Auto India supply products even beyond Delhi.

Dalit entrepreneurship thrives more in states that have a business culture and offer a better climate to startups. States where Dalits are politically more empowered have fewer business opportunities

Last year at a family function in his village, Paswan invited everyone, even Yadavs and upper-castes. “This was the first time they came to eat at a Paswan household,” he says proudly. “Money changes everything.” But there are some who still consider him untouchable and even trouble him. “They feel that being a Dalit, you are not supposed to do better than them,” he says. His father was recently dragged into a court case and the litigants demanded Rs 3 lakh as a settlement. Paswan offered Rs 50,000, but they were adamant. He opted to use the money for legal proceedings instead, and got it resolved. “My father, who can barely walk, was charged with thrashing someone. I got justice from the court.”

Discrimination is not a new experience for Paswan. “If you are a Dalit in Bihar, you know how you will be treated,” he says. “Why only Bihar? Look at other states and see how Dalits are troubled. But it won’t last much longer. The youth are more aware of their rights now.” He has only one regret: his lack of education. “I struggle every day in business because of my limited knowledge. That’s why I am providing better opportunities to all my family members, including six brothers, so that they can be more successful than me.”

LIKE PASWAN, 36-year-old Pankaj Salve is another Dalit whose luck held up. Unlike several Dalit entrepreneurs who choose manufacturing, Salve ventured into financial services after doing a Master’s in Management Studies and then worked with some of the best Asset Management Companies (AMCs) of the country. A marketing specialist from Mumbai, Salve ventured into the food business. He started a cafeteria chain for corporate offices under the brand name Spiros. He was good at relationship building and it helped his business grow. That he had worked as a delivery boy for reputed food chains after Class X was added experience of the sector.

While we see Dalit anger erupt on the streets, we also witness their rise to positions of influence. They have sought to escape social injustice by forming their own political parties, migrating away from their birthplaces, or converting to other faiths

Later, Salve, along with two friends, started Iconce Infoway, a company dedicated to developing infotech solutions. He travelled a lot by local trains in Mumbai and always felt an acute lack of information on train timings. “If something happens and trains get cancelled, there was no way to know about it until you reach the station,” he says. “There was an information system, but only for express trains.” Offering such data to local commuters struck them as a workable idea, and he and his team developed a system that allows you to get information about trains on a particular route simply by giving a missed call from a mobile phone.

Last January, Salve met Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu to discuss the idea, and the minister asked him to work on its quick implementation. In November, Mobitip phone services were flagged off for Mumbai’s Central Railway local line, and this April, for the Western Railway line. More than half a million calls have been logged for the Central line already. Salve invested Rs 20 lakh in the business, which depends on advertising for revenue. “Right now I am not too concerned about the profit,” he says, because he is confident that will happen once the user base grows.

If you are a Dalit in Bihar, you know how you will be treated. See how Dalits are troubled in other states too. But it won’t last much longer. Youngsters are more aware of their rights now

The service sector has its own challenges, feels Salve. “Whatever government schemes there are for Dalit entrepreneurs— or any entrepreneur, for that matter—are all inclined towards the manufacturing sector, with a factory and machinery as collateral. In a business like ours, a laptop might be the only available collateral,” he says, adding that he is looking for investors who will trust his idea and help take it to its next level. “Once that happens, there is no looking back,” he says. His family, along with his uncle’s, used to stay in a one-room set in Matunga Labour Camp. In 1990, he shifted to his own house in Kurla. “The DICCI has been a great influence on me,” he says. Salve considers himself lucky, but says he is pained by the condition of Dalits across the country. “You are free to do your gau raksha (cow protection), but not at the expense of others,” he says, referring to cases of attacks on Dalits, “There are some who earn a living by skinning animals or even eating beef. They should also be free to live their own way.”

Dalits are now succeeding in far more remunerative fields such as business. Given the centuries of oppression that Dalits have faced, the stories of their newfound enterprise should serve as inspiration to many more. These are the giant leaps of a community that will pave their way for a better tomorrow and a better India.